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Farmer: Irish dream season suffers disappointing end (Mar. 22)

Douglas Farmer | Tuesday, March 22, 2011

CHICAGO — It was the best of seasons, it was the worst of seasons.

It was a season of success, it was a season of failure.

It was the epoch of faith, it was the epoch of frustration.

Following Notre Dame’s dreadful loss to Florida State in its second NCAA tournament game Sunday, there were two plausible Irish reactions, each equally valid, equally appropriate, equally poignant, each intertwined with the other.

The unexpectedly high win total of 27 victories marks the 2010-2011 campaign as a worthwhile one, in which the entire Notre Dame community should take pride

Or … another sub-par postseason performance shows the program has reached its ceiling, and either an Irish Sweet Sixteen berth will not be seen for another decade, or change is necessary.

The former argument, the more optimistic argument, the glass is half-full argument, relies on just how little was expected of Notre Dame in November, expectations which pegged the Irish in the middle of the Big East pack.

Turning those expectations into a second-place conference finish and a trip to the Big East tournament semifinals, Notre Dame, well, as senior forward Carleton Scott said, “We had a great year.”

Senior guard Ben Hansbrough earned Big East Player of the Year honors. Irish coach Mike Brey received his third Big East Coach of the Year award in the last five years. Notre Dame jumped from unranked to Old Spice Classic champions in the span of three days over Thanksgiving weekend.

Losing the all-time winningest class in program history – Tory Jackson and Luke Harangody – was supposed to cripple this team. Instead, senior forward Ty Nash claimed that title for himself, now, with 96 wins, the all-time winningest player in program history.

Even Senior Day served a year’s worth of memories. Hansbrough scored 30 points to end his two-year JACC career in style, and senior walk-on guard Tom Kopko sank two free throws in the final minute as the crowd went wild.

It was a great year.

But didn’t all that go out the window at the same time as Notre Dame’s 14-point halftime lead in the Big East semifinals vaporized? While a victory over No. 15-seed Akron was the first in three years in the NCAA tournament, was it not sloppy enough that it has Irish fans still scared of the future? Was a blowout defeat at the hands of the Seminoles the final straw for Notre Dame?

This argument, the more pessimistic argument, the glass is half-empty argument, relies on just how much was expected of Notre Dame in March, some expectations even carrying the Irish to Houston and the Final Four.

Turning those expectations into another Friday night loss at the Big East tournament and the third NCAA tournament opening-weekend exit in four years, Notre Dame, well, as Scott said, “Right now, it’s difficult to put into words … Of course, we want to still be playing.”

Hansbrough fouled out of the loss at the hands of the Seminoles with more than three minutes left on the clock. Brey’s NCAA tournament record dropped to a measly 6-9, including two losses at Delaware before taking over in South Bend.

The starting lineup of five seniors was supposed to be immune to late-season collapses, mental blocks and the pressure of a single-elimination tournament. Instead, they folded against Louisville in the Big East semifinals, they slipped by against Akron Friday afternoon, and against Florida State, they seemed to sigh and sit back.

Even the early portion of the first half Sunday signaled Notre Dame’s annual demise. Holding a 9-7 lead after an unimpressive start, the Irish gave up a 7-0 Seminoles run and never overcame the 14-9 deficit.

It was a horrible year.

In this tale of two seasons, the downtrodden view only exists because the high-flying smiles arrived first.

Sunday night, the Irish were crestfallen, devastated, and understandably so, but they never would have been so distraught if they had met expectations this season. Instead, the Irish hoped to continue to rise above expectations. A hope unfulfilled.

“How numb we are. I mean, we’re all really leveled physically and emotionally because we invested so much,” Brey said. “It’s hard for me to frame the season right now.”

That investment yielded great dividends, but a horrible return.